Trauma and EMDR
What is trauma?
Though it’s a surprisingly common human condition, trauma is rarely talked about and often misunderstood.
Throughout my years as a psychologist, I’ve encountered a variety of issues with my patients. And while many of the individuals and couples that come to my office are dealing with present-day issues like anxiety, depression, anger, and infidelity, there is one common denominator among nearly all of them: past trauma experiences.
Knowing that my patients can’t reach optimal mental wellness by ignoring this trauma, I became a certified EMDR trauma therapist. It’s helped me understand the importance of healing trauma and has changed my life – and the lives of my patients – for the better.
So, what is trauma and why is it so important, particularly in relation to happiness?
By definition, trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing life experience that occurs in a position of relative helplessness. These events or experiences are typically divided into two categories: ‘big T’ and ‘small t’ traumas.
- ‘Big T’ traumas include experiences such as going to war, being raped, witnessing a murder, childhood sexual abuse, being raised by an alcoholic, and the sudden loss of a loved one. They are the events that most people would consider traumatic.
- ‘Small t’ traumas, on the other hand, are experienced on a more personal level. They include such experiences as dentist appointments, bug bites, animal attacks, falls or sports injuries, surgery, relationship infidelity, ongoing criticizing, workplace bullying, a relationship breakup, public humiliation, and the loss of a pet. These are events that can cause trauma, even if we may not realize it.
Whether big T or small t, trauma encompasses two specific aspects: the traumatic event itself, and the body’s response to it.
The traumatic event is the one that causes us to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. But the most interesting part of traumatic events is that the body can’t distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones; it doesn’t know the difference between a bear attacking you in the woods and a surgeon cutting you open with a scapula to save your life. Therefore, even events with no maleficent intent can cause trauma.
The trauma response happens when our body’s autonomic nervous system activates the sympathetic fight or flight response. This occurs when the amygdala – a pair of almond-shaped structures in the brain that sit in our temporal lobe – perceives we are in danger. If our sympathetic nervous system could speak, it would say “You’re in danger, and I have to do something to keep you safe.” The brain stem then activates the fight or flight system, so we can either fight the threat or shut down – all in the interest of helping us survive the event.
As a psychologist and trauma therapist, I’ve learned that many people are affected by trauma but remain unaware of it. This trauma often forms the basis of psychological pathology and problems that seem unresolvable. And that’s where EMDR comes in.
Trauma and EMDR
The method of EMDR that I practice, which is endorsed by the World Health Organization and the CDC, asserts a hypothesis: when we go into fight-flight-freeze, the brain – specifically the hippocampus – is unable to process the emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and body sensations we are experiencing at the time of trauma.
It’s also unable to time stamp them, which means the experiences are held in memory and cannot be turned into adaptive learning. We trigger these unprocessed memories, and that causes present-day symptoms.
Let’s use a simple example to help illustrate. Assume that a dog bit me when I was 5 years old. Today, a cute little dog with a pink bow on its head comes up to me. While I logically know that it’s a small dog and that I could probably hurt it more than it could hurt me, I may still feel scared and uncomfortable. Why? Because I have unprocessed memories of being bitten at age 5, which are triggered and cause my present-day fear of the dog.
During these experiences, we logically know that time has gone on and things have changed, but we still feel the cognitive dissonance of something being ‘off.’
EMDR therapy allows you attend to emotionally disturbing material in small does while focusing on an external stimulus, like therapist-directed lateral eye movements (see what a session is like here). This helps access the trauma memories so that you can process and resolve them, relieving your distress.
Trauma is a very real part of life, and understanding your trauma is key to being able to move forward and find happiness. I like to say that we are not our childhoods, attachments, or traumatic events. There is hope.
If you want to know more about trauma, please take a look at the links below. It will be some of the best time you will ever invest in yourself.
- Inside Out (available on Netflix)
- TEDMED 2014, Nadine Burke Harris: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime
- EMDR: Not just for trauma
- Neurons that Fire Together Wire Together – a good explanation of how interrupting patterns can help re-wire neural networks (which is how EMDR works, by resolving one issue that keeps the pattern going)